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What Have I Learned?

Pride Parade
A Columban Looks Back

By Fr. Al Utzig

Back in September 1990 I came home from Korea for a sabbatical after two terms as pastor of two parishes. It was a blessing for me to be able to attend a program at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California. I had been asked in both places to build new churches and had worked hard to raise money to do that. In both places I left behind funds to start those projects, and the next Columban after me did the actual building. So, I was tired.

At the school we did the studies and so forth, but I really enjoyed the one weekend each month when one of the Jesuit professors offered to take those interested camping in some of California’s great national parks. Being from Pittsburgh, I had never experienced those big places — Death Valley National Monument, Mount Lassen Volcano National Park, Red Rock Canyon, Point Reyes, and the monstrous migrating elephant seals on the beaches not far away. I have very fond memories of these times. The state parks in Pennsylvania really couldn’t compare.

Flag waving at a Pride Parade

Among those doing the program with us were several gay people who were ready to “come out.” And they did so in very open and exaggerated ways. It gave me great joy to be with them, seeing that they felt free enough with all of us to be themselves. Jesus is all about freedom from fear. How many times did He tell us “Do not be afraid?” When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to meet an older man who was a drag queen. He was gay. Behind his back we called him names and made fun of him, but when I met him once or twice, I found him interesting and full of great stories of what it’s like to be a drag queen. His life was very difficult with lots of suffering. I don’t know what ever happened to him.

As the school year was ending at Berkeley, we were hearing about the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. It was something strange and unknown to me. So, on the day, I took the BART train alone to town and just stood there among thousands of people who had come for the parade. From the comments flying all around me, I was pretty sure there were plenty of gay and lesbian people there. Prior to going to the parade, I had my trepidations, fears. Was I safe? Would I be molested? Or challenged? But once there among the crowd, the joyful, celebratory mood put me at ease. I was just taking it all in. People on six-foot stilts all painted silver or gold walking through the crowd throwing souvenirs, lots of chatter and laughing. The parade started with “Dikes on Bikes,” maybe a hundred, dressed in chains, some with blow-up dolls strapped to their backs, riding big Harleys. Noisy and off the wall! There were all kinds of groups on floats. But the ones I remember most were gay police, gay firefighters, gay EMT’s, gay doctors and nurses — people I hadn’t associated with being gay or lesbian. And then came the parents and friends of gay children. They were not ashamed or afraid to be seen as such. They loved their children. Period. Who am I to judge?

The parade was long, but I don’t know how long. It all was so fast to me. I went home to our dorm and finished the school year. I learned many things, but maybe the most important was to appreciate how much pressure these brothers and sisters of ours have to live under for fear of not being accepted or being free to just be who they are. To see so many just let loose together gave me one of the biggest smiles I have ever had. And I thank God for that opportunity to experience “a life not like my own,” as St. Columban would say. I hope I am a bigger person for it. 

Dance posterAt the beginning of November 2023, I joined some members of the LGBTQ+ community of Catholics in the San Bernardino Diocese where I am a pastor. They are called “Gifted and Called.” This refers to the fact that so many of them have many talents, they are “gifted,” and want to use them in the Church for the good of all, “called.” And they want to be accepted as brothers and sisters, just like everyone else, without hiding or feeling cursed or dirty or strange. They want to be respected like everyone else as they are blessings to the community.

Palm Springs was hosting the annual Pride Parade, over 200 different floats. My first experience 30 years ago was so joyful, I wanted to go again. The members of Gifted and Called in Palm Springs are mostly retired people who have gone through the wars. Our members from my parish are younger people who are getting into the wars. We were about 25. The parade was much tamer than San Francisco’s parade but just as joyful. As we walked the route, I saw many big smiles and even a few tears as the spectators realized we were Catholics and part of the family of God, God’s children.

I am now 74 years old, and my missions have brought me to this place. I thank God for bringing so many different people into my life and calling me to walk with them. We priests are shepherds, pastors. We smell like them as we walk with the sheep. May God bless this big, mixed family we call the “Church.”

Columban Fr. Al Utzig is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was ordained in 1983 after working as an engineer in a glass factory for almost five years. He spent 20 years in Korea as a pastor, with young workers, and as an organic farmer; 20 years in the U.S. as formator, hospital chaplain, and in parishes.